Archive for January 2013

Addressing the Two Sigma Problem

January 21, 2013

One of the most stimulating insights in contemporary educational theory is Benjamin Bloom’s (1984) discussion of solutions to what he calls the “Two-Sigma Problem.” Bloom shows that students provided with individual tutors typically perform at a level about two standard deviations (two “sigmas”) above where they would perform with ordinary group instruction. This means that a person who would score at the 50th percentile on a standardized test after regular group instruction would score at the 98th percentile if personalized tutoring replaced the group instruction. This improvement is not a wild dream. Bloom supports his claim with valid research, and numerous experts agree with his conclusion.

Obviously, the problem that surfaces here is that public schools are not able to provide one to one instruction to every single student. Some students receive individual support during specific time slots throughout the school day.  Our teachers work hard to differentiate instruction and provide feedback to individual students as much as possible. However, the fact remains that whole group and small group instruction is the norm while one to one instruction remains the exception in the public schools throughout the country.

What can we do?

The effective integration of technology into the curriculum provides an excellent opportunity to address the Two Sigma Problem.  Technology applications serve to create the conditions for learning that motivate students and provide them with the needed individual attention.

At Tewksbury, we have considered and implemented a few strategies that utilize technology as an integral part of instruction. One specific example is the implementation of Study Island in grades 3 through 8.  Study Island is a web-based program that incorporates instruction, remediation, diagnostic assessment, and real-time reporting. Study Island’s web based skills and standards mastery program ties directly to our current curriculum.  The real time reporting provides our teachers with formative data that can help to differentiate instruction. The students work individually, receive timely feedback, and can utilize the program both in school and at home. The program is being phased in this year with full implementation scheduled for September, 2013.

Fast ForWord is another web based intervention that serves to meet the needs of struggling readers on a one to one basis. Specifically, Fast ForWord is a series of computer-delivered brain fitness exercises designed to produce dramatic language and reading improvements in a variety of student populations by improving memory, attention, and processing skills. The intervention evolved from studies that showed children with abnormal temporal processing and language learning impairment.  Students who have difficulty processing the phoneme blends may have their phonological awareness improved in parallel with their temporal processing through the Internet based protocols of this brain compatible reading intervention. Six teachers at the Tewksbury Elementary School implemented Fast ForWord last year and our Action Research revealed that the pilot group of students in grades 1 through 4 benefited a great deal from this one to one web based program. We have been expanding the program at the elementary school and will be implementing the program at The Old Turnpike School next month.

In the spirit of addressing the Two Sigma Problem, the staff will be reviewing a program entitled The Reading Assistant. The Reading Assistant is a web based program that is designed to help students develop fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension skills. Scientific Learning Reading Assistant software uses speech recognition technology to “listen” as a student reads aloud. Monitoring for signs of difficulty, the guided reading tool intervenes with assistance when the reader is challenged by a word. The staff will participate in webinar sessions to become introduced to this “cutting edge” technology and decide how to best implement the program at both schools.

In summary, The Two Sigma Problem has plagued education since the inception of the K-12 school organizational system. Teachers are skilled at meeting the needs of their students but limited as to the time that they have to spend with students in one to one instruction. The effective integration of technology into the instructional program provides some light at the end of the tunnel of large group instruction. The staff, Board members, and community have supported these initiatives and a great deal of progress has been made to date. At Tewksbury; we plan to address the Two Sigma Problem in an ongoing and aggressive manner.

Jim Gamble